The Letters of William Godwin is being published in six volumes by Oxford University Press. I am the General Editor and the principal Volume Editor. The edition will provide authoritative, fully annotated texts of all known surviving letters from Godwin, and a selection of previously unpublished letters to him. It will include about 1500 items, of which only a quarter have been published before. Volume I: 1778-1797, edited by me, was published in 2011 (for reviews, click here). Volume II: 1798-1805, also edited by me, was published in 2014 (for reviews, click here). Volume III: 1806-1815, is being edited by M. O. Grenby. I am currently working on Volume IV: 1816-1828.
William Godwin (1756-1836) was a radical political philosopher, novelist, and social thinker of the British Enlightenment, and the head of one of Britain’s leading literary families. He was the husband of Mary Wollstonecraft, the early advocate of women’s rights, and then of Mary Jane Godwin, a translator and editor of children’s books; the father of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein (1818); and the father-in-law of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He rose to fame as the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), a founding text of philosophical anarchism, and of Caleb Williams (1794), one of the great novels of the eighteenth century. He wrote five more full-length novels, works of educational theory, children’s books, plays, philosophical biographies, essays, political pamphlets—and a four-volume History of the Commonwealth of England (1824-8).
His life is as intriguing as his works. Sociable on principle as well as by disposition, he knew or corresponded with almost everyone of note on the political left from the era of the French Revolution (1789) to that of the Great Reform Bill (1832)—including nearly all the major literary figures of the Romantic era. Godwin’s greatest impact was in the debates following the French Revolution, but his influence has been through several revivals since then, and is currently surging again among scholars and political thinkers.
Godwin’s letters, in Kenneth R. Johnston’s phrase, ‘radiate moral philosophy in action’. They occupy a significant place in his debates about ethics and politics, and show him to be committed to candid enquiry and debate in practice as well as in theory. In his letters, Godwin appears a more complex figure than his published writings suggest. He was not an inflexible rationalist, unable to form a just estimate of the affections, but was always reassessing his ideas of what it meant to be human. He reflected intensively on his own experiences (notably, his love and loss of Mary Wollstonecraft). His diligence in preserving copies of his letters after 1795 indicates his awareness of their importance for posterity. Like his diary, the letters provide insight into the self-understanding and self-presentation of a radical intellectual, and may ultimately prove more significant for interpreting Godwin than his published works.
My work on Godwin’s letters has generated other research projects in closely related areas. In 2017 I led to successful completion a collaborative project to digitise and make publicly available the sole surviving manuscripts of Political Justice and Caleb Williams. For this, I established a three-way collaboration between Queen Mary University of London, the Victoria and Albert Museum (where the manuscripts are held), and Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities. Images of the manuscripts are now available to view on The Shelley-Godwin Archive, a digital resource which is reuniting online the handwritten legacy of the Godwin/Shelley family. The publication was launched at an event at the V&A on 11 Dec. 2017, which included three short presentations by representatives of each of the collaborating institutions. To read the presentations, click here.
I am a participant in the QMUL Centre for the History of Political Thought project, History in the Humanities and Social Sciences, a collaborative research programme led by Richard Bourke and Quentin Skinner, and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The project explores the role of historical enquiry across the human sciences, from philosophy and literature to law and economics. A volume of essays based on its findings is being published by Cambridge University Press. My essay is entitled ‘Reloading the British Romantic Canon: The Historical Editing of Literary Texts’.
Since 2016 I have been engaged in a collaborative project with the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, under the general editorship of Professor Sir David Cannadine, to bring new information about Godwin and people in his correspondence networks to a wider readership, redefining our sense of the national narrative. The ODNB, first published in print and online in 2004, and updated regularly, is available for free consultation in all UK public libraries. So far I have published (with Jenny McAuley) eight new and replacement entries on figures brought to light by my scholarly annotations in Volumes I and II of The Letters of William Godwin. Three new entries—on the Manchester poet and philanthropist Rachel Prescott (1765/6-1824); the militia officer, philologist, and translator Martin Smart (b. c.1776, d. 1812); and the radical journalist and author John Fenwick (bap. 1757, d. 1823)—were published in 2016 and 2018. The revised lives of five more of Godwin’s correspondents, friends, and associates appeared in 2020: the Scottish lexicographer and author David Booth (1766-1846); the satirist Edward Dubois (1774-1850); the novelist, educator, and children’s author Eliza Fenwick (1766-1840); the bookseller, newspaper magnate, and author Sir Richard Phillips (1767-1840); and the radical bookseller and biographer Thomas Clio Rickman (1761-1834). Further collaborative work with the ODNB will be scheduled as more volumes in my edition are published.
I continue to research and occasionally to publish in some of my previous areas of interest. These include the 1790s (with special interests in Elizabeth Inchbald and Charlotte Smith), Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, the Wollstonecraft diaspora, and the political novel (broadly conceived).
A new area of active interest is the letters, journals, and diaries of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This has grown out of my work on Godwin’s private papers, but ranges much more widely.